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The Crystal Returns

Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy and I have a long history with one another, since I was a teenager I have been playing Final Fantasy with the release of Final Fantasy IV (which was released originally here as Final Fantasy II).   Since that time I have watched Final Fantasy go from a series of sprite characters to full on 3D characters sometimes with mixed results.  Some games have had questionable story issues (yes I am looking at you VIII and XII).  Others had deep characters who each had their own stories to tell, and almost every single one of them had a battle system that made you want to play and keep playing upwards of forty hours.

Square-Enix (previously SquareSoft) was one of the most succesful companies in the Playstation One era with the release of Final Fantasy VII.  Since then their games have gotten more and more style and sometimes the substance has lacked, but not always.   I have enjoyed every Final Fantasy for various reasons, some of them like VIII I enjoyed because of the battle system or the quirky characters.   Others like VII I enjoyed because of the story, back when Final Fantasy VII came out no one thought that Square would do what they did with Arieth as it had never been done before and they had the courage to do it and not go back.    Square had stated many times before that the Final Fantasy games are their biggest series and they will continue to push it as such.

Which brings us to Final Fantasy XIII the first game in the High Definition era, a beautiful game with substance, a deep story and some interesting characters despite the first few hours or the last few hours.    We waited a long time from the first announcement back in 2006 and the wait has been worth it, but in a sense you get the feeling after playing it that we won’t be seeing another Final Fantasy (besides the MMO coming later this year) for a long while.

Playability

Like every other Final Fantasy out there XIII has a unique battle system, but it’s not as unique as you think it is.  In the beginning the Paradigms system seems shallow and uninteresting, but as you continue to play through the first few hours of the game the system fully opens up and shows you how deep it really is.   It has more in common with the Job system from Final Fantasy Tactics or even X-2 than you would think at first, but it has refined the system to fit just a few different jobs: Commando, Ravager, Medic, Sentinel, Synergist, Saboteur.   These “jobs” each define what kind of role the character will be playing and as you get deeper into the system you begin to realize just how important they are.

The battle system’s other important part is the Staggering system.   You must Stagger your enemy in order to beat them, a bar builds up the more damage you do to the enemy until its full and they go into stagger mode which lets you do a whole lot more damage to them.   The trick is working your Paradigms in order to stagger the enemy quickly.  A good example is like this:  you’ve got three team mates working together a commando and two ravager’s.   The three of you are getting closer to staggering a tough enemy (there are lots of them in the game so don’t go crying to mom) and one of you is about to die but you’re only seconds and one good spell away from staggering the enemy.  Do you risk that one of the party members might die (just don’t let your leader die or its game over and you have to restart the battle) and stagger the guy for a quick kill or do you stop and heal?   It’s a tough question and I can’t answer it for you because I did it many times in the game.

If you stagger and enemy you can make it to where they can’t attack you at all as you assualt them over and over again…this includes bosses. Because of the Staggering system enemies including bosses seem to have even more status weaknesses and magic weaknesses than in any previous Final Fantasy.   There are actually bosses in this game that you can poison, slow, or even weaken defenses on in order to stagger them quicker.   It becomes important that you learn the system or you will die a lot, trust me it’s not a forgiving game once you get all of the tools of the system.   Some of the bosses are down right tough but not unbeatable.   Thats the genius of the battle system, it makes you want to keep playing with it.

A screen shot of the battle system

At first I didn’t like this system, mainly because I have no direct control over any other character other than the Leader.   You can’t tell the others in your party what to do, you can’t even suggest it to them, all you can do is give them a paradigm and hope that they follow it correctly and quickly enough.    The thing about this is it adds more strategy to the system and yet keeps the game’s battles at a unbelieveable fast pace.  I feel in love with it after playing with it for ten hours and realizing how deep it really was.  The bad thing about this is that by the time I truly grasped the entirety of the system I realized the game was over or nearly to the last chapter and I didn’t want it to end.

The only disappointment to the battle system is once again the Summons.   This time once more called Eidlons it just seems as if they serve no real purpose, in fact you can beat the entire game with out even summoning one except for parts where you have to use them and you have to fight against them.   Summoned creatures use up a different system of points which are more useful spent doing other things and they last for a very short time and seem to do less damage than your group of three is capable of doing, so once more they are just there for show instead of a useful purpose.  I miss the summons of six and seven, those guys at least did their thing, did some damage, and left.

On the other side the leveling system in the game is different as well.   Magic points do not exist this time, you can cast any spell any time you want to as much as you want to as long as you have enough command slots filled up you can cast it.   The slots also fill pretty quickly but as you get further into the game it becomes more and more important that you have Haste on your main character because they constantly need to quickly do things including healing themselves sometimes.    This also leads to the Crystarium which is the leveling system in the game.   Your character doesn’t get levels in the same sense as they do in other Final Fantasy games.  Instead you spend CP (crystogen points) to add HP, MP, spells, abilities, and also things like strength and other such attributes to your character through the Crystarium.   This is similar to X’s system the Sphere Grid but its refined and actually done better.

The biggest disappointment here for me was the weapons, there doesn’t really appear to be any reason to have multiple weapons per each characters other than for looks and for some stat bonuses against some enemies especially later in the game when you reach a certain large area where you can do all of your side quests.    You can upgrade your weapon and in fact this is the only way to get the ultimate weapon,  it’s a great system and I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been the only system for getting new weapons and accessories.  Still its a minor nitpick in an otherwise excellent battle system.

Story and Characters

As I said earlier I’ve been playing Final Fantasy games for a long time and in all of that time there is only one game that Final Fantasy Thirteen’s story is similar to:  Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III originally on the SNES) hear me out and I’ll tell you why.    First there is the main character, everyone.   Thirteen’s story isn’t the story of one character or another, it is the story of every single character, which was the same for Six as well.   There was one character in both games that stood out for me, in Six it was Locke, in Thirteen its Lightening.   They aren’t similar characters at all but both of them are leading material type characters.    Lightening is a strong woman who blames herself and also her sister’s boyfriend for what happened to her sister and she stands at the fore-front at the beginning of the game making you believe that she’s the main character.

Yet then suddenly you’re thrust into the lives of other characters in the game, and they all throw out terms and things that you have no idea on, and at first you might be confused with what a Fal’cie is or a L’cie is but there is a handy dictionary that explains it all to you.   Each character has their own reasons for hunting down the Pulse fal’Cie and the story quickly moves from one character to another.    There is Hope’s desire for revenge against Snow,  Snow’s desire to save Serah, Lightening’s desire to protect her sister, Sazh’s desire to save his son from being a L’cie, Vanille’s desire to save all of Cocoon and also Pulse, and Fang’s desire to protect Vanille.

All of these stories intersect with one another and put all of the characters on the run from those of Cocoon.  This is why the game doesn’t have typical towns or shops because you’re always on the move.   Yes its linear up to a point in the story (don’t worry I won’t spoil it) but the linear fashion helps tell a more cohesive and tight story.  yes sometimes the voice acting does faulter, but not to the point that you don’t want to keep watching the story unfold like in some other games.   The thing is some people don’t like it because it’s not a typical story.   There is no sweeping love story arc, or dark menacing bad guy, there is just the mystery of Cocoon and Pulse and what the fal’Cie want.

A lot of reviews have had a problem with this story not having a real menacing bad guy, I didn’t really even notice it as I was enjoying the characters and the battle system so much and most people will feel the same way I am certain once they play it.   It takes about ten hours for the story to really get going but during those same hours you’re learing the battle system so it passes quickly.    Things are really tight until close to the end of the game, as you travel through Cocoon usually in two or three different branching story arcs with characters separated all over the place the story keeps things moving quickly.

In those last few hours when the side quests all become available and you’re close to the ending things sort of all apart slightly.  Then the end arrives with its final battle which is in typical Square fashion a tough final battle that has three parts to it.   The final cinematic and ending story is really well done and deeply moving if you got into enjoying the characters as much as I did, and trust me when it ends you don’t want it to end, you want more from these characters and this world of Cocoon.

Over All Rating

Graphics: 10 out of 10-Square is in its element here, knowing how to put on stellar graphics even in the non-cinematic areas, each character is finely crafted, each location as interesting as the one before, and every enemy is unique looking.

Sound: 7 out of 10– I thought it was the weakest part of the game, the main music has a little too much jap-pop sound to it at time and other than a few memorable songs the music is mostly forgettable.    The voice acting is great though in almost every part but for a few faltering places here and there mainly with Hope and Vanille.

Play Systems: 9 out of 10– the Battle system in the game is wonderful as is the leveling system but  at times its also frustrating but never to the point that it makes you throw a controller…I just wish it wasn’t instant game over if your leader dies…come on square couldn’t you have given a save system with a phoenix down or something?

Story: 8 out of 10– The story has some shallow parts to it, but over all its one of the deeper stories in the Final Fantasy universe.   There are no confusing love arcs, no strange cat characters that serve no point at all (I am looking at you Cait Sith).  Instead you get a mature story about people who are just trying to save their world from destruction and if you don’t like that then you won’t enjoy the game.

Overall: 9 out of 10 –  Perhaps my love of Final Fantasy clouds my judgment sometimes but I enjoyed the game immensely and never found it dull or off putting.  I surely never found the story boring or the characters uninteresting and the battle system more than made up for teh parts where the story did lull for a time.   I’ve waited a long time for a new Final Fantasy and I devoured it and enjoyed every second of it and will again when I play it once more in the future….

Lightening facing off